The Indian middle-class cult of military-masculinity reflects a long-standing psychic wound as well as contemporary assertions of India’s place in the world. However, unlike other countries where public culture is strongly influenced by wars and ideas of sacrifice (Australia and Turkey, for example), our everyday militarism has little to do with the ravages of war itself. It has, almost always, been about middle-class identity.

First, the historical wound. A rising, but miniscule, colonial middle class was deeply stung by European assertions that Indians deserved to be colonised as they lacked both intellectual and bodily masculinity. So, the colonisers said, the Indian (Hindu) civilisation lacked the capacity of rational thought and its subjects – certainly its intelligentsia – were physically weak and, hence, incapable of military-masculinity. The perennially quotable British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay was to say that “the physical organisation of the Bengali is feeble even to effeminacy”. And that “his mind bears a singular analogy to his body. It is weak even to helplessness for purposes of manly resistance”. The slur was deeply internalised and a variety of strategies and pronunciations sought to dispute it. Rajputs rulers were put forward as exemplars of indigenous masculinity, Indians were exhorted to take part in organised physical activity, beef consumption was advocated, and many thinkers contended that the fundamentals of modern science could be found in the Vedas and the organisation of the caste system. At stake in all these responses to colonial characterisations of Indians was the self-identity of the rising middle classes.

Militarisation of everyday life

In the early 1960s, the career of military-masculinity acquired a cinematic avatar. These films, yet again, had little to do with the life of the common soldier, the hapless subject of wars and the most frequent body-in-the-bag. War films formed the backdrop to exploring themes of the loves, hates, anxieties, aspirations, friendships, loyalties, nationalism, courage, ingenuity… of the middle classes. The colonial stake in the middle-class heart – the accusation of not having the strength and mind of a warrior – was slowly being prised out. War might be hell, but for many who never experience it, it is also the theatre of self-fashioning. As long as the blood that is spilt is someone else’s, it is great material for adding colour to your own life.

Military-masculinity as a civil preoccupation has enjoyed a major revival in the immediate present. It was given a spectacular media presence during the 1999 Kargil War against Pakistan by frontline reporting that made jingoistic nationalism an art form. It was our most comprehensive media war and many of our long-serving television personalities are veterans of this war.

The Kargil War was our most comprehensive media war. (Credit: Mustafa Tauseef / AFP)

With the economic liberalisation of the economy from the early 1990s, military-masculinity, the aspirations of the “global Indian”, and the buzz of the new market place became a potent – and profitable – combination. We moved into an era of the military-consumerist complex. This has led to a militarisation of everyday life such that it has become impossible to make a public comment that might be directed at differentiating between situations of war and those of peace. The clothing of the Indian mind – most persistent in the mainstream media – in combat fatigues means that every comment on national issues that seek to move beyond militaristic argument is seen as an affront to national honour and a call to arms. It means that we are no longer allowed to think and speak beyond metaphors of war. It also means that unless all thought aligns with martial ones, it is no longer allowed.

Belligerent major generals and their cohorts – goaded by anchors pretending to be journalists – are now in charge of defining what it is to be a good Indian. And, any point of view that is critical of the state is shouted down as providing succour to the enemy. Our lives have become reduced to being pretend soldiers where cynical advertisers and self-serving media anchors blur the distinction between civil and military spheres. In all societies, there exists a small number that believes that militaristic ethos should apply to all aspects of social life and that this is a sure-shot way to civilisational greatness. God knows, we have our share. However, we may now be in a situation in India where this minority – full of frothing tabloid television rage – is transforming into larger numbers. If every situation is to be viewed as a war, how will we come to recognise the alternative?

The normalisation of the metaphors of militarism – selling us butter and scooters, deploying TRP-fuelled derision towards anything that seeks to differentiate the civil from the military – serves a democratic polity very poorly, though it will do just fine for a society in search of martial law as social norm. It becomes frighteningly clear that while actual soldiers may recognise that the military model is an appropriate one for military contexts, a large constituency of civilians think that it should serve as a template for everyday life. No matter what our media-warriors may think, the making of a garrison mentality cannot be the avenue for engaging with the economic and social challenges of this complex society. For a large section of the audience of the militarised media, however, some kind of psychic healing is in process. A middle class that was denied martial status by British colonising powers has – through donning metaphorical combat fatigues – achieved this status through other means. It has become a martial subject. The problem is that when we make violence a normal state of affairs, we destroy our own selves.